The first draft of almost any type of writing, whether it’s a poem, an essay or a novel, is going to be awful. That’s just a given. In my experience, it takes at the very minimum three drafts to find a voice, to craft just the right sentences and make sure the story flows without leaving plot holes it its wake. One major issue with writing draft after draft after draft is the inevitable blindness we all face. Mistakes, whether in plot, character, grammar or spelling, are inevitable while completing each new draft, which is why it’s highly recommended (and why even the most successful authors) have an editor by their side to review and correct their masterpieces. They’re able to look upon your work with fresh eyes and catch things you’ve become blind to because of your familiarity to the work and what your brain thinks it actually says. But in a self-publishing world, there are a lot of us who can’t afford an editor… or at least a good one, which means we have to rely on ourselves to find the problem areas before the reader does. How do you do that? Well, aside from reading your manuscript upside down (to slow your brain down), reading it aloud and being extremely hard on yourself with every line and word you read, there are a couple of things you can do to help keep your manuscript consistent and free of minor and obvious errors.
Set the manuscript aside for at least two to four weeks
This idea isn’t new, and many writers, editors and moms of the world have recommended it. But that’s because it’s true. When you’ve put all of your soul into a piece of writing, you want to believe every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter is magic gold, especially after having read through it a half a dozen times. It’s at that point when you’ve lost perspective, and the only way to truly know if what you think is working actually works is to set the book aside and forget about it for a few weeks. More than likely, when you return to it, you’ll see the problem areas more clearly and wonder why you even wrote it that way in the first place.
The first draft of my upcoming novel, The Spirit Of…, was written ten years ago. I went through several edits, had a couple of friends and fellow writers go through it for feedback and rewrote it a few more times. For me, I was at the top of my game. I sent it to publishers, I sent it to agents. Nothing but silence and rejection returned. So I set the manuscript aside and started working on other projects. Over time, as we all do, I grew as a writer. After finding self-publishing to be a valid opportunity, I decided it was time to return to one of my favorite manuscripts and clean it up, do some final revisions and get it published. When I first started reading it over, though, you can imagine how disappointed I was. I understood why the manuscript had been rejected. The story, the characters, the ideas, the twists — everything I originally loved about the book was still great. The prose, on the other hand, were heavily rudimentary, and it took me that amount of time to comprehend that. But now, after having cut out all of the extraneous material and made some very hard (and some rather easy) cuts, the book is so much cleaner and so much better than it was when I was still a fresh young writer with a desire to be the next Stephen King.
Create a master details list
This one may be obvious on the surface, but until you’ve actually done it, it’s one of those things that can be forgotten or underutilized. A lot of writers start by writing out a slew of notes before they even attempt to write a word of prose. That’s all well and good, but writing is fluid, and will always change, no matter what plan you may have for it. Outlines and notes are just that — sources of reference for when you get stuck, or find the story has started to go off track. If you’re doing it right, and the characters started to take you on their own journey, your completed first draft will bear only a minor resemblance to the original notes. The end may be so far away from where you started that you need to rewrite the entire first act just to line things up correctly. That’s where a master details list comes in handy. After rewriting the manuscript a few times, go through it once with an eye for details. Don’t look at or consider any aspect except for those things like a characters hair or eye color, descriptions of buildings or landscapes, and even terminology (especially in science-fiction or fantasy writing) in technology or language.
Did you mention your character’s height on page 5? Jot it down. Did a character use a certain turn of phrase that might be important later? Make note of it. The type of home, someone’s license plate number, what hand the six-fingered man has six fingers on… write down every important detail so that if something comes up on page 248, you know exactly where to look to find that information without having to comb through and reread the entire manuscript to find it. (It will also tell you if you have used that particular detail before, without having to recall where you may or may not have used it before). When I was building my master details list for my novel, Jaxxa Rakala, one of the characters nicknamed her little sister Squint. But I noticed that at times she called her Squints instead. So I had to make sure which one was used first, and then double-check to make sure every time she called her that, it was consistent. But I probably wouldn’t have caught it unless I had written it down and cross-referenced it with the details list.
Create a list of problem words
This last rule of thumb goes along with the master details list, only this one’s for grammatical and spelling mistakes. Once again, it seems simple enough, but it’s one thing a lot of writers either ignore or forget to do prior to hitting publish on their manuscript. But had they done it, it would make their documents look that much more professional.
This list contains words that are often misused, such as their, there and they’re. It’s easy to accidentally use the wrong spelling of a word when writing a first draft, since you’re not worried about that at the time; all you’re worried about is getting all of your thoughts on the page. But here’s the rub — spell checks and grammar checks won’t catch when you use their instead of there. So you have to be extra cautious when going through your final drafts in order to make sure your brain hasn’t blinded you from seeing the misuse. My list also includes: its/it’s, your/you’re, whose/who’s, hear/here, past/passed, and effect/affect, among others. When I’m nearing the time to format and prep the document for publication, I will do a search for every single one of these words and double check that I am using them in the correct way. Because their is nothing more embarrassing then to read a sentence wear they’re are so many blatant issues. This is also a good way to check for consistency in some words, such as gray or grey. It doesn’t really matter which way you use it, both are acceptable. The point is to be consistent, so by having something like this on your list, you can do a quick check to make sure it’s spelled the same way every time.
So, next time you’re on your twelfth draft of your masterpiece, and you’re ready to hit publish, go through these things first, just to make sure you haven’t missed something that your readers will catch with their very first read.
Do you have any other suggestions for writers who can’t afford to hire an editor? Any other tips and tricks to stay consistent or error free?